Last week the Library of Congress hosted a day-long conference on romance fiction (and related topics) in the digital age. Along with Len Barot, Beverly Jenkins, Nicole Peeler, and Susan Ostrov Weisser--see above, in the photo by Margaret Locke--I was was on the first panel, which was supposed to focus on the question "What Belongs in the Romance Canon?" A number of other ancillary questions were posed by the moderator, Pamela Regis, including how broadly defined "romance" and its canon should be.
Each of us on the panel got to make a three-minute opening statement, and I spent a sleepless night trying to decide what I ought to say in my slot, what I should save for the Q and A to follow, and so on. In the end, here's what I wrote out and said:
The last thing that popular romance needs is a man in a suit explaining--mansplaining--what belongs in the romance canon.
I can tell you who's been on my romance syllabi. As your program notes, I've taught upwards of thirty courses exclusively devoted to the genre at DePaul, from historical surveys to thematic courses to ten-week seminars on individual romance novels. But every book and author I've taught is there because of the expertise and enthusiasm of some blogger, reviewer, scholars, reader, librarian, or author who loved that book, put that book on a list, or put that book in my hand, saying "this is awesome, this was influential, this would teach really well; I don't get to teach this class, and you do, so put this in it."
It's worth nothing, I think, that so far every one of those bloggers, reviewers, scholars, readers, authors, and librarians has been a woman.
Now, I don't always end up teaching the particular novel they suggest. Sarah Frantz Lyons has been after me for years to teach It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and my wife loves Match Me if you Can, but Natural Born Charmer is my jam: it teaches perfectly, for me.
This leads me to a second point about the romance canon, one made last spring by a young Australian scholar, Jodi McAlister. In the romance world, Jodi wrote in a blog post called "Boom Goes the Canon," there are certainly iconic books, authors, publishing lines, but they don't function the way a traditional literary canon does--to establish authority, to separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, the gospel of the lord from Bible fan-fic. Romance readers, she writes, are quite comfortable with the ideas of subjective pleasure and continent value. What works for me won't work for you; what works for me might work for some reason other than "objective artistic merit" or some other demonstrable reason for canonicity.
There are, we might say, many fish in the sea, or a lid for every pot: a lesson from within the novels that romance readers seem able to map onto the literary field of the novels themselves.
The romance community is quite comfortable with what Barbara Herrnstein Smith once called "Contingencies of Value." And as a scholar, my inclination is less to weigh in on what belongs in the romance canon, or what the boundaries of that canon should be, then to try to learn what the romance world can teach me about why we ask those questions, and about what's at stake in how we answer them.In the Q & A that followed, I mentioned Noah Berlatsky's canon piece in Salon and Wendy the SuperLibrarian's response (and the comments from her readers that followed). But I wanted to take the opportunity of the 3-minute formal address to do something Sunita mentioned in a comment last spring when that whole canon business was getting talked about: that is, to draw my audience's attention to the women whose expertise I've relied on all these years, rather than pretending to an expertise of my own. (I do have some expertise of my own, I hope, but it's not about what's in or should be in the romance canon!) Jodi's piece has been on my mind for nearly a year, and that seemed like the one to flag most immediately--and I figured I would have plenty of chances to plump for particular novels, etc., as soon as the discussion started.